The Election: What Scottish Labour Should Do Next (But Probably Won’t)

Post-election narratives don’t come much bigger than a party left staring into its very soul. Questions over leadership, policy, engagement with the electorate – this is how the debris of defeat is supposed to resemble. But to be so comprehensively outflanked by a party that – independence aside – occupies a similar wavelength of the political spectrum? Ouch.

For Scottish Labour must be hurting right now. Watching as your share of vote tumbles from 42% to a shade over 24% in successive General Elections – bye-bye, 40 of 41 seats – is nothing if not a bat up the collective nightdress.

Yet even more worrying from the party’s perspective is the genuine prospect that this may not be a mere blip in that long-standing “Labour heartlands” narrative, but a complete recalibration of where the left-of-centre momentum will be sitting for the next five, ten, whatever years. The SNP may have given Labour the bloodiest of bloody noses this time around, but without some wit, guile and imagination, there’s little to suggest that this won’t become a pattern.

Far be it for me to run Scottish Labour’s election post-mortem for them; indeed there’s already debate amongst senior politicians over and above the noise generated by the Parliamentary Labour Party in Westminster, and the forthcoming meeting of the Scottish Executive Committee may see a shift in the leadership. Still, even from the outside, there’s some obvious pointers as to how Scottish Labour can at least begin to reassert itself within Caledonian politics; items its very future as viable mechanism may depend on.

In the short term, it’s obvious; Jettison Jim Murphy. Wangle him in a seat in the Lords. Tell him that he’s done a sterling job as Scottish Leader, and that as a reward he’s being promoted to head up the Easter Island branch. Tow him into the Firth of Forth for use as target practice… it doesn’t really matter how the Executive chooses to do it, just as long as he’s never seen or heard in Scotland again. For Murphy is the epitome of the toxic brand, perceived to be duplicitous, charmless, politically narcissistic and little more than a Westminster stooge. When SNP-supporting wags have launched an online petition pleading with you to stay, it’s probably time to engineer an exit.

However, swapping Murphy for a Kezia Dugdale (or whoever) is an empty gesture without a fundamental shift in both strategy and purpose.

De-coupling from the Westminster party is a must, the austerity debate just the latest example of an SNP gifted initiative by Scottish Labour’s lack of autonomy. You can’t present the electorate with a coherent narrative when the big bosses down in London hold a veto, and as Johann Lamont implied when quitting as leader in 2014, UK Labour’s interference is not limited to policy. To be effective, Scottish Labour needs to serve as sister organisation rather than branch office, taking the Westminster whip on UK issues, but gaining the manoeuvrability to address the very different Scottish agenda on its own terms.

For far too long, Labour has fostered a top-down, paternalistic relationship with the Scottish electorate – which may have been fine and dandy back in 1962, but as the SNP’s Holyrood powerbase demonstrates, isn’t an option in a political climate driven by local activism and engagement – for indeed it’s this that has proved a keystone of nationalist success. Only a Scottish party (and not a UK body with local branding) can begin to rebuild its support, using Holyrood as its aperture; only then can they begin to undercut SNP support on socio-economic issues, and face that pernicious independence question head-on.

UK Labour may have been the architects of devolution, but there’s always been a suspicion that their reflexive unionism has tempered enthusiasm for a federalist solution. And yet devo-max offers the perfect opportunity not only to see off independence at the pass; by proactively advocating a fully devolved future, buttressed by economic solutions the pro-indy alliance never satisfactorily answered, Scottish Labour can be at the heart of a truly progressive, pro-Scotland movement.

Traditionalists may not find reinvention easy, and for us neutrals at least, the months ahead will be fascinating. However, there is one thing that needs to cease immediately; stop inviting English politicians/celebrities to prowl the streets of Glasgow, telling Scots how to vote. The Indyref lesson – hordes of Labour grandees emerging from Central station, only to be hailed with the Imperial Death March and “Welcome to our Imperial Overlords – can’t really said to have been learned when Jim Murphy’s secret election weapon turns out to be Eddie Izzard in St Enoch Square, rocking the primary school headmistress on verge of retirement look amidst waves of heckling. If nothing else it’s patronising as hell, and if the recent SNP has demonstrated anything, it’s that Scotland is sick of being patronised.

Duncan Harman is a new Glasgow based writer on Slugger. We welcome him to the site. He can be found on twitter @lazerguidedblog

  • Ernekid

    Murdo Fraser when he was in the running for leader of the Scottish Tories a few years ago suggested that maybe the best way forward for conservatism in Scotland was the establishment of a totally independent party with a new name that had no real connection to the London based Tories.

    Maybe that’s the way forward for Labour in Scotland? A new independent party unaffiliated to Westminster that has proper Left wing Labour politics as its base. If Labour wants to survive in Scotland it has to become more agnostic on the Union.

    Scotland needs a strong Labour Party it isn’t healthy for Democracy if the SNP are allowed to dominate without any real opposition. It’d be a shame if the SNP became a Scottish version of Fianna Fáil. A party in power in perpetuity thanks to the incompetence of its opposition.

  • Nicholas Whyte

    I’m inclined to agree with this. New constitutional arrangements need new political party arrangements to cope with them. Not only Labour but also the other parties need to respond.

  • Kevin Breslin

    The Scottish Tories seem a lot more grass rooted to Scotland than the Scottish Labour lot seem to be. Tories probably will be happy to remain Tories, they are Conservatives after all. The Lib Dems and Labour Scottish versions do need to change.

  • scepticacademic

    Now really is THE time for this, with only one Scottish Labour MP in Westminster, the London ‘HQ’ has no legitimacy over the Scottish arm. Plus, the English part will be pre-occupied with the leadership election until autumn. To survive, Scottish Labour needs to break its formal link with Westminster politics and re-connect with its Scottish grass-roots and core vote. Otherwise, the SNP will have the easy narrative of “here come condescending Labour, with their London masters and English interests, telling Scots what’s good for them”. A healthy democracy needs a strong opposition and ultimately an alternative government. If Scottish Labour fails to make the necessary adjustments now, it could be in the wilderness for a long time.

  • NMS

    Nicholas, Yes it seems logical. I was looking at some of the Scottish constituencies and there remains a healthy non SNP vote, just spread out. Much of the SNP vote looks as if it has been “borrowed” from other parties, which if they had a uniquely Scottish persona might return.

    For example, Aberdeen South fell to SNP this year, but was held by the Conservatives until 1997 election. Even this year, it was a Lib Dem collapse more than a Labour which was the basis of the victory. This of course was at one time the seat of Donald Dewar. He had taken it from its longstanding one nation Conservative, the quaintly titled Baroness Tweedsmuir, who won it in a bye election in 1946. The Conservatives still took 23% this year and I think it is fair to say most of the SNP voters are probably centre right type of people.

    The Baroness subsequently received a title in her own right and went to the House of Lords as Baroness Tweedsmuir of Belhelvie.

  • dodrade99

    I don’t see how embracing the SNP narrative of separation helps preserve the union.

  • NMS

    The National has a report taken from The Tablet, which suggests that 48% of Scottish Catholics voted SNP, abandoning their traditional antipathy to the Party, The original report in The Tablet is available here

    The loss of such a core group of traditional Labour supporters puts a slightly different gloss on the above piece. Have the efforts made by the current Scottish Government to tackle sectarianism worked? Or was it the failure of the LP to “mind the vote”? It is certainly too soon to say that it is a vote for independence.

  • Holmeboy

    Interesting points raised here. I think it is time for UK Labour to split into a federation of England, Scotland and Wales, each focusing on it’s own nation, but at Westminster working as a block like Labour has done for decades with the SDLP.